The history of the SS Richard Montgomery

26th April 2024

A well-known sight off the coast of Kent may soon be dissapearing under the waves.

It was announced this month that safety works on the SS Richard Montgomery off the coast of the Isle of Sheppey will include the removal of its masts that are visible above the sea.

The shipwreck from world war two was left with 1,400 tonnes of explosives on board after the time of its sinking, with concerns about a possible explosion still active to this day.

In 2021 the masts of the ship were deemed to be adding to much pressure on the hold of the ship and would need to be removed.

In June 2022 the plans were delayed after metallic objects from the vessel were found to be lying on the seabed that needed to be removed.

This decision to remove the masts of the ship, that are visible above the sealine, have concerned some on the island.

Isobel Evans, who frequently travels to the Isle of Sheppey for work said: “You'd hear stories as a kid about the explosion causing a tidal wave and blowing out the windows of buildings as far as Sittingbourne. It’s quite scary to hear all these theories and possibilities of what could go wrong.”

Who is it named after

Being an American ship, the SS Richard Montgomery is named after a US soldier of the same name.

Born into a noble family in Ireland, Richard Montgomery served in the British army for 17 years before moving to New York and marrying Janet Livingston in 1773.

During the American war for independence, Montgomery fought on the American side of the war and climbed the ranks to Brigadier General due to his previous military experience.

General Richard Montgomery was laid to rest in Quebec in 1775 after his death at 37 years Old.

He fell in the attack on Quebec on the 31st December 1775 from gunfire from British and Canadian forces.

Richard Montgomery - credits: Marion Doss on Flickr

What happened?

The American ship was made in 1943 in Jacksonville, Florida, 1 of over 2,500 mass produced vessels.

Designed to carry supplies for the war effort, the Montgomery was launched in June of 1943 and had cargo space for around 7,000 munitions.

On the 20th of August 1944, the ship became grounded off the coast of the Isle of Sheppey in August 1944 after becoming stuck on a sandbank.

The crew had dropped anchor after being ordered to do so to wait for a convoy to continue its journey across the Channel.

There were efforts to remove the cargo, however by the 25th of September the ship flooded after a crack appeared in the hull.

The boat now lies with 1,400 tonnes of explosives still on board, with the masts of the ship still visible above the sea.

Rumours and threats

Despite being under the water for almost 80 years there is still a chance that the explosives on board could detonate.

The main concern from the wreck’s cargo is the resulting tidal wave that could flood Sheppey reaching as far as the Kent and Essex coastlines.

In an earlier report in November 2000 by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency it was said that: “Whilst there is little data available that can be directly related to the particular situation with the SS Richard Montgomery, it has always been accepted that a mass explosion would put property and the local population at risk.”

Further reports have not gone into depth on the dangers of disturbing the Montgomery, however it is important to note that the ship has been under water for this time, which could have some effects on the power of the explosives on board.

Further rumours have suggested that a tidal wave or explosion could cause damage to buildings across Kent destroying windows and flooding the Isle of Sheppey.

Sheerness coastline - Google maps

How is it managed

The Shipwreck now comes under section 2 of the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973, which means there is an exclusion zone around the ship in order to prevent disturbances.

This exclusion zone is marked out with buoys and warning notices attached to the masts of the wreck.

However, in recent years there have been some incidents of people ignoring this and sailing out to the area.

The Montgomery has also had regular surveys in order to keep an eye on the structural integrity of the ship.

The most recent survey listed on the UK government website was in 2022, with surveys being carried out on a yearly basis before this.

These surveys are often carried out using sonar technology since 2002, however there have been some incidents where a diving team was sent.

These regular surveys have been successful in identifying several issues with the boat in the past.

What’s happening now?

In recent years, surveys to the ship have identified the current ongoing issues with the masts putting pressure of the cargo hold of the ship.

After the problem was discovered in 2021, it was announced that the masts would need to be removed as part of safety works on the wreck.

After some delays, the masts of the ship are expected to be removed within the next year.

These safety works mean that the masts of the ship may no longer be longer visible above the water.

Featured image – Des Blenkinsopp at Wikimedia commons